Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Fun with stock photography part 2: in which it becomes clear that I can totally get away with pressing the search button instead of the shutter

Those who know my husband know that when he latches on to a new technology, he becomes fully obsessed with it. His new Blackberry is no exception. Yes, he's admittedly a bit late to the game where this particular technology trend is concerned, but never fear: he's making up for lost time by fiddling with the damn thing constantly. Every time I turn around, he's checking email or finding a weather forecast or sending a text message or discovering some amazing new feature which I must. drop. everything. to. admire. immediately. Forget photos of the backs of people's heads; I should really just be taking pictures of Paul playing with his Blackberry all over Europe.

I returned to the dining room table last night after a trip to the kitchen to raid the Halloween candy clear the dinner dishes and found Paul hunched over his Blackberry in a now-familiar pose. He had just pulled up my blog entry from earlier in the day, but because of the size of the Blackberry screen, he could not see any further down than the stock photograph of the Changing of the Guards.

The man was there with me. He held Julia on his shoulders for far too many back-breaking minutes in an effort to help her see through the crowds. He followed me in a random zig-zag pattern through the masses in search of a better view. He held the camera as high as he could and randomly clicked the shutter in the hopes that we might be able to get a better look via the photos. He even, to his credit, managed to wait a good 15 minutes before suggesting that crowds were not his strong suit and perhaps we should consider finding some lunch. But did any of that experience factor in when he admired the perfectly-framed, not-another-tourist-in-sight photo on my blog? No, it did not.

"Hey," he said. "This is a great picture! I must have taken it..."

Monday, October 30, 2006

Google Images: even better than the real thing

We're finally unpacked and settled enough to start doing some sightseeing, and last week's Half Term (i.e. school vacation week) gave us the perfect opportunity to get started. Where did we begin? Where else...

With the pageantry and the music and the horses and the royalty, the Changing of the Guards seemed like a memorable starting point for our young tourists. We were right -- the trip itself was a hit. Evan liked the music and the big, furry hats and Julia liked imagining what her bedroom in the palace would look like if she were a princess. One for the memory books? Sure. Except (ahem) guess what the photos that we took look like?

Nothing says "we were there" quite like photos of the backs of other tourists' heads. Would it be horribly unethical of me to fill our travel albums with stock photography? The idea is strangely appealing. Hell, if it weren't for the obligatory "cute kids at notable tourist destination" shots, we could almost leave the camera home entirely...

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Two if by sea (but maybe not the two we were expecting)

Our belongings arrived at long last yesterday, just over six weeks after they left our New Jersey home for a slow boat journey across the Atlantic. We've all been eagerly awaiting this shipment, each for our own reasons. I've been dreaming of stir frying in my big Calphalon pan, sleeping on my own pillows, weighing myself on a scale that measures pounds rather than stones and placing those nice antibacterial Bath and Body Works hand soaps in each of our bathrooms. (I can't explain this last one, but it's felt very important for some odd reason.) As the weather's turned increasingly chilly, Paul's become more and more anxious to receive his coats, which he unfortunately neglected to pull out of a closet and stick in his suitcase before the closet's contents were packed for shipment. Julia and Evan have been looking forward to riding their bicycles, assembling their train set and rediscovering countless other toys and games. Most of all, I think we were just hoping that with the arrival of our belongings, this place would really start to feel like home.

A day of frantic unpacking and reorganizing later, this place does indeed feel a little more like ours, and we've each been happily engrossed in rediscovering our own belongings. And yet, there have been a few unexpected surprises as well. One of the benefits of moving on a corporate relocation package is that you don't have to pack up your own home; the nice men come in and do it for you. One of the drawbacks of having strangers -- however nice -- pack your belongings, I'm now realizing, is that some of your careful ship/store instructions may get a bit lost in translation.

I will be learning to assess my weight in stones, I'm afraid. That digital scale I'd been looking forward to receiving has either been packed neatly in our storage container back in the States or sacrificed to the Moving Gods. Ditto that great artwork of Julia's that I'd just paid $150 to have professionally framed. The pots and pans I've been dreaming of are here, but somewhat hard to handle without the pot holders that I'd also been expecting. I happily rested my head on my own familiar pillows last night, but Paul probably didn't sleep as well, since his pillows appear not to have made the journey.

But never fear! There were no major omissions from our shipment, thank goodness, and the handful of items that were left behind were replaced by quite a few inexplicable additions. We may not have pillows or pot holders, but we have every note that was passed to me in seventh grade and we have the tiny hooded towels that my children used as infants. Paul has no sneakers here, but we have one of the Robeez puppy shoes that Evan wore religiously before he could walk. It's a shame that we don't have that framed artwork of Julia's, but maybe we could hang my old Girl Scout sash on her bedroom wall instead. No muffin tins made the journey overseas, but we have the tracks to a slot car set (though not the actual car that runs on them), several dozen empty wire hangers and some unidentified audio tapes, all of which are bound to come in handy for... something. We have not been inundated with stuffed animals, having carefully stored the majority of our kids' collections, but my childhood pal Dolly was apparently unwilling to be left behind, because she showed up in a box yesterday, cheerfully winking one broken plastic eye at me.

In addition to (most of) our belongings, our movers shipped us a good laugh, which is never a bad thing. Of the things that are missing, well, we'll replace what we need and live without the rest -- no harm, no foul. Discovering some of the things that arrived in their stead was almost worth the inconvenience, particularly the last page (and only the last page) of a long forgotten copy of Pat The Bunny. Goodbye, New Jersey! Goodbye, belts and books and knick knacks and memories! Paul and Judy are waving bye-bye to YOU.

Monday, October 23, 2006

The best of both worlds

Paul and I have been homeowners for over 7 years now, and we're both very fond of our house in the States. Granted, we've experienced our share of typical homeowner issues; flooded basements, leaky ceilings, carpenter bee infestations and the like. Each time we've shelled out a chunk of cash for a service call, we've moaned about the high cost of owning property (ditto when the tax bill, with its intevitable annual hikes, arrives). But the costs are outweighed by the benefits, and we feel very lucky to own such a comfortable, attractive piece of property in an area where we can raise our children in relative safety and privilege. That house means a lot to us, which is why we decided to rent it out while we were abroad rather than selling it outright. We're comforted by knowing that our home will be there waiting for us whenever we decide to return.

In many ways, it's felt like we were going backwards, moving into the London rental property we now inhabit. It doesn't particularly bother us that the space is smaller (in some ways, one-floor living is very attractive with young children). But the fact that we don't get to make our own decisions about wall colors or lighting fixtures and the knowledge that this place is only transiently "ours" is a little unnerving after so many years of living in a house that we own.

Despite the attitude adjustment that this transition has required, being here has also turned out to be surprisingly freeing. It's taken us 7 years to furnish our house, and we're still not through. We debate and discuss and delay through each agonizing decision involved in making our home our own. Not so here, where we've essentially furnished our entire abode in under a month. No red couch in stock? Fine... we'll take the tan plaid. Let's move on. The double bed is unavailable? Congratulations, Julia... you've just been upgraded to a queen size. Let's all go get some lunch. The whole thing has been relatively painless, dare I say even a bit fun, because we know it's all temporary. We expect to leave this all behind in a few years, so why waste time arguing over what kind of wood finish we prefer? Take whatever's in stock and let's go see some sights. In the end, our flat seems to be shaping up quite nicely. Won't it be ironic if we end up preferring some of the impulse purchases we've acquired here to the items we've so carefully researched and obsessed over back home?

This past week, we had a plumber in to look at one of the toilets in our flat, which is not flushing quite right. He tinkered for a bit and then came back with his assessment; this would be a complicated and expensive problem to fix. My automatic response when he said this was the familiar "there goes the slush fund" gut clench I've experienced so often when speaking to plumbers in the past. But Paul laughed when I told him about the situation. "It's not ours, so it's not our problem," he reminded me. Yes, I'll probably have to harass the landlord for weeks to get this issue taken care of. But the headache of paying for the repair belongs to someone else.

I was beginning to feel pretty giddy about this whole transient living thing. "We've got the best of both worlds," I thought smugly, "hassle-free living now and a home to return to in the future." Feeling smug, I should have realized, is never advisable, because it's never a good sign of what's to come. Not even a day later, I received an email from our tenants back in the States. Seems that in a great big flush of karma, the toilets aren't operating properly there, either. A plumber will need to be called again. This time the cost will be ours.

Yep, we've got the best of both worlds, alright. A toilet that doesn't flush correctly, no right to authorize the repair work required to fix it, and a plumber's bill for toilets that we're not even using right now. And that, people, is a shitty situation in every sense of the word.

Friday, October 20, 2006

A timely conversation, given yesterday's post (alternate title: shyness rewarded)

Julia: "Ashley and I ran an errand for our music teacher today."

Me: "That's nice. How did you end up doing that?"

Julia: "She asked who wanted to go."

Me: (surprised) "And you... raised your hand?"

Julia: "No. A bunch of kids raised their hands, and that's how Ashley got picked. But then the teacher suggested I might like to go with her."

Me: "Did you want to go?"

Julia: "Yeah. I just didn't want to raise my hand."

Me: "Well, I think it's nice that she picked you. Do you think maybe you were being good in class and she wanted to recognize that?"

Julia: "Maybe. Being good here seems to mean being quiet. And I'm very good at being quiet in school."

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Thinking: out loud

"I don't know if you've noticed it," a fellow expat said to me in an email yesterday (hi, Cami!), "but I swear they drug kids here to keep them so quiet." Don't know if I've noticed? Good God, how could I miss it?

I first became aware of some notable differences between British and American children on the playground soon after we arrived here. I had my suspicions that the chasm between our cultures' behavior expectations might be greater than I'd initially anticipated when the school secretary expressed astonishment at Evan's exuberance and noise levels at a moment when I'd just been proudly thinking how well behaved he was being. Since then, there have been near constant reminders and indications that British children have been conditioned to be far more obedient and silent than my own. Either they're drugging the kids here just as Cami suggested, or I'm incapable of raising anything more than a couple of heathens.

My American kids make a lot of noise. When they are being good, they express delight at the world around them and loudly proclaim their love of people, places and things. When they are being bad, they squabble and they yell and they pick fights with each other and beg me to choose sides, all at the top of their lungs. Either way, they are not quiet, and their activity level generally matches their noise level, what with all of the running and jumping they tend to enjoy. They are children, and in the States, I never thought twice about all of the energy behind their voices and actions. Quite frankly, I could rarely even hear them above the din of everyone else's kids. Compared with many of their American peers, Julia and Evan seemed really well behaved, almost too quiet and reserved at times. If anything, I worried (when I bothered to think about such things at all) about whether they were assertive enough.

I don't worry about that any more, that's for sure. The pointed looks I get every time one of my children makes a sound or moves an inch seem to indicate that both kids have some serious mastery of the assertiveness thing... not to mention the entitlement thing and the blatant disregard for social niceties thing and probably a couple of other things which are terribly important around here but of which I've yet to grasp the subtle nuances.

Paul and I vacillate wildly between thinking that the whole quiet, well-behaved thing is completely eerie and unnecessary one minute and scrambling to force our own two kids into submission the next. I'm forced to reexamine my views on all sorts of things as I struggle to figure out just how much I want to fit in around here, and my parenting values and techniques are no exception. On the one hand, it certainly would be lovely to have children who behaved perfectly in any social situation. On the other hand, they wouldn't be *my* kids, or at least not the ones I know and love. I do believe strongly in letting kids be kids. I do worry and wonder about what the long term effects of stifling children's natural exuberance and curiosity and expressiveness might be. That is, until said natural traits draw unwanted attention to my kids or disturb people around us, at which point I'm frankly not sure what I believe about anything any more and I don't really care as long as the kids shut up... and fast.

A year or two in another country... a chance to learn about new cultures and try new things. It was bound to change us all irrevocably, and I thought that I knew that before we left. But I am only now realizing just how completely this experience is going to challenge my assumptions and beliefs about what is right and appropriate and real and important. I don't know yet where the happy medium might be between appropriate juvenile behavior here in our host country and that which we valued back home. I don't know if I'll choose to follow that happy medium even if I can find it, or whether either set of cultural values will eventually win out in my mind. But I suspect that there are quite a few changes in my parenting style and my kids' behavior ahead as I try to sort it all out. It's too soon to have any idea how this experience abroad will eventually change my family. But I'm suddenly pretty damn sure that we will return to the States very different people than we were when we left.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

They had me at the special sauce

Our original destination was actually the Roslyn Delicatessen, a local establishment that fully understands -- and capitalizes on -- American food cravings. This was a special trip, made at Evan's request, to pick up a few boxes of Kraft mac & cheese (for the low, low price of nearly 5 bucks a box). As we walked, I was thinking about the whole idea of comfort food and the prices we'll pay and the lengths we'll go to in order to savor the flavors that taste like home.

We located our target, resisted the urge to also purchase a $10 box of graham crackers, and left the shop, a box of the neon yellow starchy milk byproduct and noodles firmly grasped in Evan's hot little hands. Coming out the door, I found myself turning right to head up the hill instead of left to head home. I wasn't quite sure where I was going, but I clearly wasn't ready to return to our house just yet.

A minute later, as I pushed open the doors to McDonald's and stood staring at the pictures of burgers and fries on the overhead menu, I knew where I'd been headed all along. I couldn't remember the last time I'd had a Big Mac -- or even the urge for one -- but I knew I was about to order one. I may have managed to resist fast food for most of my adult life, but it's still the ultimate in comfort food to me. Evan had his taste of home. Now I wanted mine.

I got the whole shebang; the Big Mac, the fries, even a Diet Coke with that familiar tinge of waxed paper cup flavor, sipped out of an oversized straw. And I ate every last bite, minus two fries which I "graciously" shared with Evan while snarfing the rest down before he could ask for more. The whole thing was over before I really even knew what had hit me. And now? I feel full, fat and a tad nauseous. I feel more than a little sheepish about my lack of self control.

And I feel very, very American.

Monday, October 16, 2006

The new kid

Julia's academic transition, as I wrote last week, has been surprisingly seamless. Her social transition has been a little less successful so far.

We have stumbled, for better or worse, into a school where all of the children seem to invite the entire class to their birthday parties. After the 37 or so parties which Julia attended back in the States last year, if has felt strangely deja vu to have a calendar filled with Julia's social engagements rather than our own, and I'm back to buying birthday gifts in bulk and grumbling about the lack of free time my nearly-5 year old's party schedule affords us. It's also been somewhat of a relief, however, for Julia to be included in all of the festivities. These invitations that keep arriving in her school bag each day are a signal that she's part of the group and that the other children in the class are accepting her mid-term addition into their circle.

Sort of.

Julia had parties on both Saturday and Sunday this past weekend. She was very excited to receive the invitations and looking forward to both events. On Saturday, however, she came home sad that the birthday girl had not picked her for any special games or honors. On Sunday, she came home sad that she had not had anyone to sit with on the coach ride home from the party. She may be part of the group, but she's definitely playing the role of new girl.

From what I've been able to piece together, Julia's working quite hard to insert herself into the social mix at school. She's played with nearly every girl in her class at one point or another and has tried as best she can to involve herself into games and activities that interest her. She's met with mixed results. This is a tight knit group of kids, many of whom are on their third year together, and the personalities of the girls in particular are quite strong. Some have been friendly and welcoming. Others frankly sound like they've been a little rude. But no one has particularly stepped forward to embrace the softspoken latecomer with the strange accent. For now, my kid is definitely the odd man out, and that's a role she's never played before. She's a little confused by it all, and it breaks my heart to watch her try so earnestly to navigate her way through this new experience without a friend to hold her hand.

I know that Julia will eventually find her niche and I'm sure that she will make lasting friendships over time. But like everything else around here, it's not going to happen overnight. I'll do my part to help, of course; as soon as I can figure out who might be a good match for her, I'll try to set up some playdates, and I'll throw Julia a lovely birthday party and simply cross my fingers and pray that the children in her class attend. But in the end, I can't make the other kids befriend my daughter, and quite frankly, neither can she. It will happen, if it happens (it has to happen, right?), when it happens.

Figuring out how to make friends and form a community for myself here is hard. But watching my daughter try to do the same? That's about a million times harder.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

A learning experience

I’ve always been pretty opinionated on the subject of early childhood education. Preschool, I’ve told anyone willing to listen, should be about fun, safe, age appropriate interaction. A good sensory table, free access to art supplies, well designed playground equipment, caring teachers and a healthy snack are the cornerstones of what I consider to be a good nursery program. There are plenty of years ahead for our kids to devote themselves to academics. The early years should just be fun.

All of that is out the window here in London.

The British take a very different approach to education than we do in the States. Here, children attend school for much longer time periods and begin academic work from a much younger age. As a 4 ½ year old, Julia would have been learning through play in a Pre-K class this year had we stayed in New Jersey. There would have been little in the way of “traditional” academic work in the curriculum, though she would no doubt have learned quite a bit without even realizing it. In contrast, 4 ½ year olds here are in Reception, which is the first formal year of schooling (though most kids have already been in some sort of a Nursery program). Reception classes are full day and follow National Curriculum guidelines for educating students about literacy, numeracy and other early academic skills. It is a far cry from the sand and water tables I looked for when selecting a school back home.

We could have tried harder, I suppose, to find an American-type educational experience here for Julia. But we came to London to experience life here, not to replicate our life back home, and the British educational system is part of that experience. In the end, we hedged a bit by selecting a school which houses Reception classes with the Nursery students rather than with the rest of the Pre-Preparatory grades. The building, with its brightly colored kids’ artwork and classrooms full of young children playing, looked a little more familiar to us than the schools that had 12 year olds raising their hands at desks just down the hall. As a bonus, this school had a spot for Evan in January, and the idea of having both kids in the same place was appealing on both an emotional and a logistical level. The actual Reception curriculum, with its French lessons and worksheets, still felt downright silly to me. But that’s what they do here. And so that, we decided, was what we would do, too.

Julia’s been in school for nearly 3 weeks now and there’s no doubt that she’s adjusting nicely to her new environment. She chatters cheerfully all the way home each day about the activities and lessons she’s participated in throughout the day, and seems completely unfazed by the amount of time she’s spending on traditional academics. I generally hear about the “extras” first; gym and music and art and dance are always among the highlights of her day. But she’s often every bit as excited about a book she’s read or a math exercise the class has completed or a new French word she’s learned. The day feels impossibly long to me, the expectations of these not-yet-5-year-olds incredibly high. I was shocked the other day to discover that Julia had taken a math test (though I'll admit she didn't even realized she'd just been tested), and I continue to be overwhelmed by the amount of time the class spends on desk work. Yet, I have to admit, the kids all seem far more capable and ready for this kind of learning than I might have expected.

It helps some in our case, I suspect, that academics come easily to Julia. She taught herself to read more than a year ago, so the prospect of daily one-on-one reading with her teacher was neither intimidating nor particularly challenging (it is helping, though; I can already see her reading confidence and skills growing exponentially with the discipline of daily reading). As a child who loves to teach herself new things, Julia’s already mastered many of the other concepts her class is working on, so literacy and numeracy lessons have turned out to be fun group activites for her rather than things she's necessarily had to learn. (The one exception is handwriting, where her self-taught block printing is woefully behind her peers' pre-cursive penmanship.) She's a fairly quiet, well behaved kid (except at home!) and she thrives on routine, so the discipline and order of the classroom and the structure of the school day are probably more comforting to her than they would be to a more physically active child. Despite all of my protestations that young children should really only be learning to play and socialize at school, I have to admit that this whole academic thing seems to suit my kid just fine. In fact, I daresay she’s pretty damn happy.

Have I changed my mind about early childhood education already? Not by a long shot. I still wish that I could have given Julia one more year of fun in her American preschool classroom before she dove headfirst into a dozen or more years of academia. But it didn’t happen that way, and now that I’ve seen the British educational system in action, I’m definitely becoming a bit more open to other ways of doing things. Julia really likes learning things like French in school. Evan, who’s now counting and saying his colors in French thanks to his big sister’s tutelage, can’t wait to get into school to see what his teachers are going to teach him. And maybe, just maybe, I’m learning something here, too.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

ComPLEATly imPRESSive uniform

Which is sillier, Julia's pose or my ongoing quest for ironing perfection?

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Our house (in the middle of our street)

Earworm, anyone?

Friday, October 06, 2006

The hardest part

I received an email from one of my closest friends this week with a subject line that read "are you ready to come home yet?". She meant the question to be tongue in cheek, I'm sure, but I considered it carefully before replying. It has been an exhausting, overwhelming whirlwind of a month. Would I really be happier if I could just go home now?

Finally, I sent her a reply. "I'm not ready to come home just yet," I told her, "but if I could ship you over to hold my hand through this adventure, I'd do that in a second."

I've been blessed over the past few years with an amazingly large and diverse group of friends. I hear people talk frequently about how hard it is to make friends in adulthood and how isolating staying at home with small children can be, but I have always found the opposite to be the case. Between the friends I had before my kids came along and those I've been lucky enough to hook up with since I became a mom, there are quite a few wonderful people in my life. In many cases, I've done nothing special, or at least nothing that I can concretely identify, to seek out these friendships. I've just come across interesting, interested individuals and clicked with them; it's as simple (and yet as intangibly complex) as that.

I guess I just assumed that the same would happen here in the U.K. And maybe it will. But it's obviously not going to happen overnight. It takes time to identify places and opportunities where like-minded people can be found. It takes time to recognize kindred spirits, especially in a place where they may not necessarily look or sound anything like me or my other friends. The British way of communicating, so much more reserved than the over-the-top American style I'm accustomed to, is bound to make things even more difficult, as striking up a conversation with someone you don't know well seems less appropriate here. I have the sense that I'll be feeling my way for a while, going it on my own for a while. I knew that would happen before I got here, of course; that's the reality of moving anyplace new. I thought that I was prepared for it. And yet, the actuality of the situation, rather than the contemplated hypothetical, has left me feeling both impatient and isolated. I just don't do well without other people around me.

This morning, I attended a mums' coffee organized by one of the parents from Julia's class. After two weeks of dropping Julia off at school and picking her up without a welcome or even nod of recognition from anyone, I was both excited and nervous about the opportunity to actually meet and talk to a few of the other parents. Would I be welcomed, I wondered, or would I walk away from the event dreading the next year of school-related activities with these people? The school community might not be my only chance at local friendships, I knew, but it was an easy start, and I sensed that this coffee might be a preview of the reception I could expect here as an American expat.

I did not make any instant friends this morning, and I did not walk away with any playdates or lunch dates scheduled. I didn't truly expect those things, of course, though it would have been wonderful to solve my loneliness problem so easily. But what I found was more than I'd hoped for nonetheless. For 2 hours after school drop off, I laughed and talked with some lovely, interesting women. I heard stories about their children and the school community, got advice and information about the area we've settled in, chatted comfortably about nothing in particular and was genuinely made to feel a part of the group. Some of the women I met today are people whom I will simply smile at during drop off and pick up, but there were a few I'd like to stop and chat with and even one or two I might hope to pursue a friendship with over time. At the very least, I will not dread -- and may even downright enjoy -- future opportunities to interact with this group.

"It's only a year or two, so if you don't make any friends over there, it won't be the end of the world," a friend said to me back when we were first considering making this move. "I don't know," I replied. "I need people in my life. Without at least some friendly acquaintances, I'm not sure I'd make it for too long." The possibility of not making friends here has been my biggest fear about this move, one of the only factors I knew I would be unable to solve with research and careful planning, and the thing I've worried most about over the past few lonely weeks. But today, I made my first friendly acquaintances. I'd still far prefer to ship all of my American friends over to share this experience with me. But I think -- I hope -- that I'm on the right track to make it on my own.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Note to self

When they say "always carry an umbrella in London," they actually do mean always carry an umbrella. They most definitely do not mean "always carry an umbrella unless you are just running out to pick your daughter up at school on a beautiful sunny day."

I trust it is not necessary to elaborate any further.

Monday, October 02, 2006

You have now entered the twilight zone. Please apply steam and press lightly.

After noticing the undeniable difference between Julia's washed-and-worn pinnies and the neatly pressed ones on her classmates, I have just bowed to the pressures of conformity and spent an inordinately long period of time ironing my daughter's school uniforms.

Ironing, yes. Me.

Grey flannel pleated pinafores. Yes, I said pleated.

No, as a matter of fact, I don't iron. How ever did you guess? (Something tells me, the teachers will be able to guess as well.)

This private school thing just gets more and more surreal...